The Deep South is a region of rich history, agriculture, and charm. But there’s more here than you may know. One southern city has been reaching into the solar system for more than a half century.
As motorcyclists go, we’re a bit of an odd couple. My good friend Stephen is on his well-worn Kawasaki Vulcan 800, which serves as his daily transport back in Atlanta, GA. The old Kawi’s beater-bike persona comes complete with a rattle-can paint job and (courtesy of its previous owner) eardrum-abusing straight pipes, which Stephen hates. I’m sure those pipes haven’t won Stephen any friends in his hometown.
In contrast with this old workhorse, I’m riding the epitome of a modern, technologically advanced sport-tourer, a 2013 Yamaha FJR with flat silver paint (the only color they come in) and an exhaust note suggestive of a sewing machine. But in spite of the vastly different characters of our two motorcycles, we’re here for the same purpose: to explore the backroads of northern Alabama and southern Tennessee and to find the historic and asphalt treasures lurking in “them hills.”
On God’s Porch
It’s not even 7 a.m., and the sun is already high in that famously blue Alabama sky as we roll south on 231 from our home base in Huntsville. Shortly after we cross the Clement C. Clay Bridge over the Tennessee River, the bustling city of Huntsville melts into the peaceful pastures that cover so much of the South. As we continue down State Route 36, we motor past fields of newly baled hay, and Stephen’s pipes send cows lazily meandering away. Eva Road winds us toward Cullman, AL, site of the Civil War Battle of Day’s Gap. The skirmish, which took place on April 30, 1863, pitted Union Colonel Abel Streight, whose mission was to attack the Western & Atlantic Railroad, against Confederate Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Streight’s troops, lacking cavalry horses, were forced to use mules picked up from farms in western Tennessee, thus earning themselves the embarrassing title of the “Jackass Cavalry.” In the fight, the Union forces were able to prevent the Confederates from surrounding them. They were only delaying the inevitable as they were surrounded, and subsequently surrendered, four days later.
We leave Cullman on County Road 222, heading mostly westward and deeper into the countryside. The route turns from the typical two-lane, rural road to an unmarked, single lane that is almost lost in the surrounding fields. The views are spectacular, and we don’t see a single car, truck, or human being for miles. Lewis Smith Lake lies just south of us like a many-tailed dragon across the landscape, its thin arms poking their way northward as we cross several of them. County Roads 22, 77, and 41 take us northward toward tiny Addison. By now we are quite hungry, and a big sign for Smith’s Barbecue lures us off the track.
After a particularly tasty lunch, we plunge deeply into the William B. Bankhead National Forest, one of Alabama’s four national forests, on Highway 278. The path carves through thick, towering woodland walls on either side. The sunlight flickers as it struggles to pierce the leafy canopy overhead. The forest is named in honor of former U.S. Congressman and Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead. Though a successful politician, he may be more widely remembered here in SEC country as a member of the University of Alabama’s first football team in 1892. At SR 33, we turn north, and after skirting Cheatham Knob (dubiously considered a mountain at 1,027 feet), we finally exit Mr. Bankhead’s forest.
Upon reaching Moulton, we head northeast on SR 24 before again crossing the Tennessee River, this time on U.S. 31. After a right turn on CR 24, and in proximity to Huntsville, we are shocked by one of the most beautiful fields we’ve ever seen. Golden wheat stalks seem to follow the planet’s curve all the way to meet the sky. While we’re stopped for pictures, a local informs us that this particular spot is known as “God’s Porch,” an altogether apt name for such a stunning place.